May You Live in Interesting Times – Proposition A

Visting the Venice Biennale is like entering an art marathon – it requires endurance and stamina (my recent post explains what on earth this Biennale thing is all about). The Arsenale show is vast, you disappear into an ancient shipmakers warehouse. You emerge blinking into the light hours later and in my case with *alot* of photos and a notebook full of scribbles.

For the first time, the Arsenale show is composed entirely of contemporary artists recent work – all living and working today. This makes it feel very directly responsive to the current eddies and streams in politics, society and life today. Ralph Rugoff the curator states that his aims are to show:

“art’s social function as encompassing both pleasure and critical thinking”  and “entertain alternative points of view”, as the show “questions … cultural boundaries and borders”

All admirable aims and I think this show goes a long way to do doing all of those things. It perhaps focuses more on critical thinking than pleasure, although I suspect that is a function of many of the stronger, darker undercurrents in the world today.

He is clearly deeply concerned about a preponderance of reductive thinking in modern life. A concern I share too. He says ” this exhibition aims to celebrate art’s capacity to stimulate complex responses and conversation’. He clearly has this in mind with his selection of works and also his choice to show ‘very different’ works by the same artists across the two shows, Proposition A and B. I agree that complexity isn’t to be shied away from, but at times I felt the labelling and explanatory notes about exhibits left a lot to be desired.

The dire turgid prose written about each artist or pavilion felt like downright unnecessary ‘complexity’, or worse, obfuscation – excluding much of the audience. Dense, impenetrable and self-involved. I often wonder if the people who write these things have any inability to put themselves in their audience’s shoes? Generally at Venice Biennale I’ve been on my feet for hours on end, have a bad case of gallery foot/back; haven’t followed the minutiae of this artists career, or even heard of them before. Give me no words and let me use my own imagination or write a considerate informative piece of contextual information.

This may sound like a petty rant but I fear framing art with such dire writing fundamentally undermines art’s ability to engage with the social issues of today. Poorly written words are dangerous, not because I may not be able to follow them, but because they exclude a broader audience. It makes the art-world seem insular, disconnected and over-privileged.

I believe deeply in the importance of art to society. Good art is for everyone. It illuminates, entertains and questions. Much of this show does exactly that, so on with my highlights – things I loved or found interesting. I’ve written about these in the order I viewed them, with my thoughts along the way.

PS. If you want to look at any of the images more closely, right-click and choose ‘view image’.


001 Zanele Muholi (loved)

Huge self-portraits, with eyes that follow you, asking you what you’re thinking.  There were several of these portraits dotted throughout the Arsenale, each time quietly, steadfastly imploring you to think and question ….

Phaphama, at Cassilhaus, North Carolina, 2016. by Zanele Muholi


002 Ed Atkins, UK (interesting)

This is what I think of as the ‘deconstructed Eton Mess’ approach to art. Nothing to do with private education, or dessert really, but when you are served the key ingredients separately, and whoever is serving hopes it comes together as more than the well known whole. In this installation, called ‘Old Food’, there were CGI videos, racks of theatre costumes and some graphs about medieval times. The whole thing seemed to be about narrative  – it felt like a deconstructed fairy tale . The CGI videos had fairytale imagery – wooden huts in forests, roaring fires, figures trying to get somewhere or escape scary things; the theatre costumes had told stories on stage and had the air of a production of the Nutcracker about them and the info-panels were telling a story through numbers.

All very interesting but my favourite thing was watching how the crowds interacted with his work. They were totally engrossed watching the strange fantasy tales of the CGI videos and totally ignored the costumes. I thought these were beautiful, the weight of the fabric seemed to hail from another era. The name tags sewn into the costumes made me wonder about who had worn these costumes and what story they were telling. And the info-panels, well unfortunately they were mostly too dark to readin the low light. Although I could just about makeout the one below about the statistics on medieval manuscripts. And yes self-confessed data geek, that one I loved .. old books and a graph, fascinating. Would love to know if it’s real or not!

003 Tavares Strachan, The Bahamas (Loved)

Celebrating the life of  the first African-American to go into space, who sadly died in a space accident. I feel like neons are overdone these days, but this figure and script was beautiful.

004 Shilpa Gupta, India (Loved)

Loved her use of sound, the human voice, commemorating words spoken by 100 poets, who were persecuted and imprisoned for their beliefs and writing. Beautifully presented in a hushed, softly lit space, literally pierced by stakes and the spoken words.

005 Yin Buzhen, China (interesting)

A huge sculpture of an air passenger in the crash position, made out of second-hand clothing. I agree that excessive air travel and the impact of the fashion industry are major concerns in the world. So interesting to see work on this topic, but for me it didn’t really get under my skin.

Nowhere to Land, 2012


006 Nabuqi, China (Loved, Loved, Loved)

I thought this installation really skewered the online pseudo-reality we are often surrounded with.

007 Martine Gutierrez, USA (loved, loved, loved)

More pseudo-reality being skewered. Huge, high impact portraits really nailing social tensions today: male-female power structures; ‘real’ vs plastic fantastic appearances; work vs leisure and more.

008 Hito Steyerl, Germany (interesting)

A dark space with raised walkways, multiple videoscreens, with coral waving, flowers opening into bloom and a slightly other-worldly voice narrating.  She was narrating a journey looking for plants with special properties, like flowers that poison autocrats and protect against hate speech. She spoke of neural networks and was saying things like “in this forest science comes to die and is remade as alchemy”. She was also talking about random forest growth being the basis for common prediction algorithms, which is true.



009 Christine and Margaret Wertheim, Australia (loved)

Beautiful crocheted coral, made collaboratively by many participants. Thinking about an issue deeply local to Australia, their home country. Loved the meeting of mathematics and crochet.

010 Maria Loboda, Poland (loved, loved, loved)

Visually this just spoke to me – offices, modern life, smart-casual. I think it’s years of working in offices myself. What are they all really thinking underneath their identical blue shirts? What are they all really doing vs. the tactile messy making of clay. Who is the unshaped form within? The unrealised-self perhaps?

Lord of Abandonded Success, 2017

011 Michael Armitage, Kenya (Loved, Loved, Loved)

The return of painting – figurative and narrative. Telling the story of recent elections in Kenya. Epic.

012  Haris Epaminonda, Cyprus (loved, loved loved)

I loved this. Quiet, peaceful and cryptic. I’m not sure what it was all about, but it felt like a beautiful symbolic sanctuary. Respite from the constant questions and anxiety of alot of the show

013 Alexandra Bircken, Germany (loved)

Would win my best-use-of-the-Arsenale-space prize. Visually arresting and pretty damn effective at questioning our ongoing quest to scale new heights. Called Eskalation, the ‘bodies’ are boiler suits dunked in latex.

014 Alex Da Corte, USA (loved loved loved)

Bright colours and surreal stories with familiar characters. Utterly enjoyable, witty and humourous. So nice to be surrounded by a warm fuzzy glow of colour and not be sat in the dark, feeling tense to watch some video art!

Rubber Pencil Devil, 2019.

015 Avery Singer, USA (Interesting)

And in retrospect looking at these photos again, I really love this work. The meeting of digital modelling, photography and drawing. Thinking about the interwining of the online and real world. An excellent self portrait.

016 Neil Beloufa, France (Interesting)

Interesting to me, perhaps as a counterpoint, or academically speaking. I’ve been thinking alot about how artists working with other contributors present their work. This for me fell into the camp of over-engineered – various screens, gym equipment, conversations with soldiers areound the world. The setup did however seem to draw an audience, so, yes, interesting.

017 Ryoji Ikeda, Japan (loved)

I love data. Awesome to see big data being used in art. Wish I hadn’t been quite so hungry for lunch at this point!

018 Jimmie Durham , USA (Loved and Interesting)

A clear simple idea, addressing a concern about extinction of large mammals. Doesn’t need acres of art-waffle to understand and visually interesting. Really liked it on lots of levels.

019 Zhanna Kadyrova, Ukraine (Loved, loved, loved)

Fruit made of tiles. Bright colours, an entire market stall of mosaic, cubist food! Brilliant. I’m sure it has some deeper meaning too, but it was also just enjoyable to look at. I’d have loved to see one of her performances. Art as pleasure.

020 Anick Yi , South Korea(Loved)

Finally a bit more beauty – lovely glowing structures. Brain fried by this point of the show, but the looked great, especially in the setting. Very extra-terrestrial with little craters bubbling below.

021 Slavs and Tatars

Ending on a bonkers weird one. You’ve made it to almost daylight at the end of the Arsenale show. This is the last installation. The curator’s note mentions something about trying sauerkraut juice, you’re not the only one to look perplexedly from the neon green fountain to the strange taped up vending machine. I watched a couple of people really trying to open it.A reminder of all that is brilliant and mad about the Biennale, before you’re spat back out into daylight and the normal world!